Guest Columnist Abortion kills a potential saint, but it’s not a saintly deal killer

They say you shouldn’t talk about religion or politics in polite company. In a jarring opinion piece on CNN’s website earlier this summer, a religion professor, seeming to talk about both, served up a poisonous cocktail of confusion, one that might deny souls the balm of God’s mercy.

“Can Catholics abide a saint who had an abortion?,”  Stephen Prothero of Boston University asked, wondering if Dorothy Day should be considered an acceptable candidate for canonization. He later restated the question as: “Can you be a saint if you have committed the original sin of contemporary Catholicism?”

Given that original sin hasn’t changed since the fall, Prothero’s rewrite was as misguided as his original misfire.

This religion scholar was reacting, in part, to a recent news of a conversation Day reportedly had in the 70’s with Daniel Marshall, a member of her Catholic Worker movement:

Then Dorothy said, “You know, I had an abortion. The doctor was fat, dirty and furtive. He left hastily after it was accomplished, leaving me bleeding. The daughter of the landlords assisted me and never said a word of it. He was Emma Gold-man’s lover; that’s why I have never had any use for Emma.”

No doubt Prothero’s question was influenced by the scandalous mess of Catholic witness in recent decades. Indeed, Catholics are frequently seen using their professed faith to defend abortion rights, often out of a perverse, albeit sometimes well-intentioned sense of “social justice.”

It’s probably fair to say that Day is more readily embraced by those who are active in liberal, rather than conservative politics. But when looked at through a political lens, she presents challenges to all—and especially to those who don’t want to acknowledge that this woman who could be considered a hero of left-leaning Catholics also came to believe that abortion was a grave evil. 

I can’t help but think that with his question Prothero was acknowledging this unholy divide. It is a question born out of a caricature, one that presumes anyone opposed to abortion would be outraged by the possibility that the Church would officially elevate one who had committed such a grave sin to the ranks of the canonized. For her promiscuity alone, Prothero seems to expect that a heckler would stand alongside the crowds on Day’s canonization day screaming “Jezebel!”

Perhaps someone would. Who am I kidding? Of course someone would. We are quite the varied mix of sinners, after all. And while we may be made in His image, to forgive truly is divine. Thank God for His mercy because life here at times would seem rather merciless if the dispensing were left to us alone.

But that anyone would take the time to write such a piece as Prothero’s, positing Day’s abortion as a saintly deal-killer, is a loud and alarming siren alerting us to widespread pain in our midst. There is great suffering surrounding abortion. It not only kills a life but leads souls straight to despair.

As committed prolifers, we must speak to this, and help lead the wounded to the solace of God’s mercy. As firmly as we must stand against legal abortion in our country, so too are we called to support women and men who, having made not-so-great choices, find themselves facing the challenges of an unplanned pregnancy—or the heartache of having procured an abortion.  

Yes, Dorothy Day wasn’t living a chaste life prior to her conversion, but she had a conversion! She would change her ways and become a model of charity and peace. As Prothero notes, we do know that while she had an abortion, she would later develop a clear opposition to it—not just experience the disgust the newly reported exchange reveals.

In a 1974 interview, Day said: “We do believe that there is not only the genocide of war, the genocide that took place in the extermination of Jews, but the whole program—I’m speaking now as a Catholic—of birth control and abortion, is another form of genocide.” (Something worth thinking about as the Department of Health and Human Services mandates that even Catholic organizations must provide health-care plans covering contraceptives, including abortifacient drugs.)

The Church gave us a great gift in the timing of the beatification of John Paul II this past May on Divine Mercy Sunday, a feast which was so close to his heart. During his life and pontificate, Blessed John Paul II not only decried the culture of death but gave us a new language in his call to help build a culture of life.

He put Church teaching on love and responsibility to new music—what is known as the theology of the body. It is a vision of human sexuality ordered by mature self-giving and openness to children, a proposal meant to be presented always with mercy and love. To do otherwise would be like putting salt on the open wounds of a culture suffering the cruel and often bewildering effects of rampant sexual disorder.

I don’t know if Dorothy Day will be canonized. But to suggest that the nature of her sins might keep her out of the Communion of Saints is only to divide and hurt souls who should be uplifted by the example of the trajectory of her life.

Everyone who is pro-life—and we can be Right or Left or somewhere in the middle and be so—ought to take Day’s words about the genocide, about the disgust, to heart, remembering also that with God, all is forgiven—sexual sins, even lethal ones.

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In 2000, the late John Cardinal O’Connor, bishop of New York, compared her conversion to Saint Augustine’s.

In announcing the opening of her cause for sainthood, he wrote of Day: 

“To be sure, her life is a model for all in the third millenium, but especially for women who have had or are considering abortions. It is a well-known fact that Dorothy Day procured an abortion before her conversion to the Faith. She regretted it every day of her life. After her conversion from a life akin to that of the pre-converted Augustine of Hippo, she proved a stout defender of human life. The conversion of mind and heart that she exemplified speaks volumes to all women today on two fronts. First, it demonstrates the mercy of God, mercy in that a woman who sinned so gravely could find such unity with God upon conversion. Second, it demonstrates that one may turn from the ultimate act of violence against innocent life in the womb to a position of total holiness and pacifism. In short, I contend that her abortion should not preclude her cause, but intensifies it.”

Whatever our sins, there is the confessional waiting. It is our way to freedom. The freedom to be a saint, fed and nourished by the graces of our lives lived in the sacraments of our Lord. Dorothy Day knew that freedom, thanks be to God. There is no foundation to a culture of life without it.

A version of this originally appeared on the Catholic Eye newsletter published by National Committee of Catholic Laymen.

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